On the drive back from Caltagirone, I realized I was coming down with something. It wasn’t the flu, nothing like that. These were the symptoms of a malaise I’d been stricken with before in my travels. MSSFS. Must-See Site Fatigue Syndrome. I had reached the point where no matter however beautiful or fascinating, I could not bear the thought of visiting one more Greek temple or Roman ruin or Baroque town. At least for a day or two.
So when the host of the agriturismo I was staying in mentioned that the Borgo Più Bello dell’Italia for 2014 was the hilltop village of Gangi, I thought, why not? I’ve visited many of Italy’s ‘Most Beautiful Villages’ over the years and always found them to be well worth the drive. This one was just over 100 km away, peanuts for a Canadian.
As an added incentive, Gangi was just a few kilometres from the southern boundary of the Parco delle Madonie, a nature reserve – one of only two in all of Sicily – known for its spectacular natural beauty, especially in spring when the mountains were covered with wild flowers. And… there was another Borgo Più Bello dell’Italia within the park’s borders. And… the northern border and most common point of entry to the park was on the outskirts of Cefalù, one of Sicily’s most charming fishing villages. Since I would be staying in Cefalù later on in my trip, it would have made sense to leave the park for later and visit it from the north, like everyone else does. But I was already beginning to feel an intense longing for the sea. I was pretty sure that once I got to the coast, I would have no desire to go inland.
Apart from the occasional local in a hurry to get to work – I just pulled over to let them pass – I had the roads to myself. It was lovely. I was so glad I’d decided to take a break from all the erudition and spend a day in the park. Of course I wasn’t thinking of how the line in the old song ends – …too late to run for cover.
As I drove north, the clear blue skies gave way to dark clouds. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. When I rounded a corner and saw the village, my heart sank. Do you ever ‘know’ something, but try hard to convince yourself you’re wrong? This was one of those times. I knew in my heart of hearts the village I was looking at was Gangi, but the way it sprawled down the hillside looked so utterly lacking in anything that would warrant its being classified as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages made me not want to know this.
I walked all around the village, on the lookout for anything remotely charming or bello.
I saw a few anziani (old men), but as for Gangi’s charms and beauty, they remained secrets for me. Even the location of the village bar was a secret.
I had left before breakfast was served at the agriturismo and had been looking forward to a cappuccino and some kind of brioche to go with it for quite a while by now. There had to be a bar somewhere. If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years of travelling around Italy, it’s that even the smallest, most desolate-looking village has a caffè or bar, some place to get a coffee. Finally I asked.
I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t enthralled with the village. After I returned home, there was an article about it in the New York Times (June 22, 2015): ‘Sicilian Town Tells Outsiders: Take Our Homes. Please.’ by Elisabetta Povoledo. It seemed that Gangi had been hemorrhaging young people for decades. Since the 1950’s the population had dropped from 16,000 to 7,000. Desperate to resuscitate the village, City Hall had come up with a plan – they would give houses away. The only catch was the new owners had to make the houses – some of which were in a serious state of disrepair, having been abandoned long ago – liveable. Within four years. In spite of the exorbitant costs of renovations in Sicily – or anywhere in Italy for that matter – a few new owners quickly took up the challenge. Emboldened by the positive response, City Hall set up a waiting list. They wanted to be sure that prospective home owners could not only afford the costly renovations, but also that whatever the new owners had in mind, it would somehow enhance the village’s chance of survival. One applicant who promised to create a hotel, was given two houses and permission to purchase an additional seven.
Who knows? Maybe in a few years Gangi really would be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Even after a cappuccino, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to continue driving all the way to Polizzi Generosa, the other ‘most beautiful village’ in the Madonie. And this was when one of the perils of travelling solo raised its ugly head. Because at that moment, it occurred to me that by the time I explored even part of the park, I wouldn’t be all that far from Cefalù, that charming fishing village I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Now had I been travelling with a companion, it is highly likely that this companion would have pointed out a number of reasons as to why this was not a good idea, and I would have – probably after some undignified protestations, for which I would have had to grovelingly apologize later – turned the car around and headed south, back towards the blue skies and Agrigento and we would have spent a lovely afternoon somewhere along the south coast of the island.
To reassure myself that I hadn’t been afflicted with a momentary impairment of my faculties – a worrying thought for someone who would like to continue travelling on her own, at least for a few more years – I checked the exact distance out later. From Gangi to Cefalù was 60 k – less than half the distance from Toronto to Niagara Falls, a day trip most Torontonians would take without a second thought. I didn’t need to worry. Not for the time being.
In the lower areas – below 1,500 m – cattle and sheep are grazed as they have been for centuries.
The road wound itself up the hill. I could hear the sound of bells, but apart from the cows I’d passed earlier (lower right corner in the photo below), there were no other animals in sight.
The clanging kept getting louder, and a few bends in the road later, I saw the sheep.
Further along I saw a bull – or was it a big cow? One of the drawbacks of being a driver on twisting, mountain roads – if you want to have a good look at the sights, sometimes the only thing to do is pull over.
I found a spot where the road was marginally wider and started walking back. But then the cow/bull turned around. As we stood there eyeing each other, it occurred to me that the break in the wall wasn’t temporary. The wall hadn’t collapsed in a recent storm and was going to be repaired any day soon. This really was a bull crossing. The enormous creature had probably made his way down to the break in the wall and crossed the road to the pasture on the other side many times. I beat an undignified retreat to my car.
A bit further along I came to a spot that looked more promising. A rare straight stretch and a flat area off to the right.
I was adjusting my lens to take another shot when I felt something stinging my legs. I was covered with ants. The biting kind. I had been so focused on avoiding getting stung by a bee I hadn’t thought about being attacked from the ground. I swatted furiously and headed away from the road to a part of the ridge where the plants were much lower and I could keep an eye on the flowers and other things coming up from the ground.
It turns out the rock rose is a lot less fragile and a lot more wily than it looks. Over the centuries, it has set up a partnership with a fungus – a distant relative of the truffle, no less – which among numerous skills of use to the rock rose, has the dubious ability to kill all vegetation – except of course its host plant, the rock rose – within reach of its mycelium (roots). The competition having been eliminated, the rock rose has exclusive access to whatever nutrients are in the vicinity, which means that it can grow in even the poorest soils throughout Sicily’s long, hot, dry summers.
Another trick up its pistil – or is it the stamen? – in any event, another, equally canny adaptation has to do with reproduction. After its seeds ripen, they get blown around by the wind for a bit, and eventually, like the seeds of other plants, fall to the ground. But instead of germinating right away, the rock rose’s seeds remain dormant. For as long as necessary, which usually means until the occurrence of a ‘disturbance event’. Fire is the most frequent ‘disturbance event’ in these parts. The heat of the fire softens the hard coating and the seeds sprout. And since they are so small, there are usually a lot of them lying in wait in one area, certainly more than most other plants, which means they can easily beat out the competition, number-wise, in the post-fire sprouting frenzy.
I walked to the edge of the crest. There are 15 towns and villages within the park, but most parts felt very remote.
The hilltop village beyond the roses looked more promising than Gangi had been, but the clouds put me off. Time to head for the sea and, speriamo (speh-ree-ah-moh), the sun. One can always hope.
As I continued northwards, whenever bells and a bit of space at the side of the road came together, I would pull over and play ‘spot the herd’.
I made one exception to the no-hilltop village rule. In Geraci Siculo there was a castle.
It was a good thing I’d had a cappuccino in Gangi. Here there wasn’t even a bakery, let alone a bar.
As I got closer to the sea, the vegetation changed. Around one bend in the road I came across the strangest sight. Like some tangled forest in a Grimms’ fairy tale.
They were cork oak trees.
The idea of having ‘just a quick look’ at the town was tempting, but the thought of the long drive back to the south coast of the island was stronger. Thank goodness. In fact, if I had known how long and how stressful that drive would turn out to be, I might have turned right around and headed south immediately. But then I would have missed a delightful lunch.
I’m a slow eater, but even so the dark clouds gathered so quickly, by the time I’d finished lunch, the skies were totally overcast. It was easier to leave, knowing I’d soon be back. By which time the sun would surely be out.
Maybe if I were one of those Canadians who live in British Columbia I’d have a better sense of what can happen, weather-wise, in the mountains or by the coast. But I live in Toronto. The land – where you can glimpse it among the plethora of skyscrapers – is flat. And the lake we’re by is, well, think of a very large bath-tub. It’s not that we don’t have the full range of weather. It’s just that we don’t have such a wide range of it all at once.
At first the skies to the south were a nice blue, with lots of fluffy, white clouds.
The clouds got thicker and lower and less white until as far as I was concerned they weren’t clouds any more – this was fog. While this may not have been a meteorologically sound point of view, there wasn’t much of a view left anyway. And then I came around a bend.
I left the car in the middle of what was left of the road – I was beyond caring about such things – to have a closer look.
If someone else had been with me what kind of conversation would we have had? Would I have done what I did? If you’re guessing I kept on going, bravo! What were the options anyway? Go all the way back to Cefalù? Try one of the few roads I’d passed to get here? Have you noticed there haven’t been any road signs. And the cloud-fog was so thick I didn’t even know which direction I was going by this point. I don’t know how long it took me to drive what was probably less than a 1/4 kilometre before I was back on a proper surface.
I drove for an hour or so along various twisting mountain roads – the SS643, then a bunch of SP9730’s – SP9732, SP9737, Sp9738. I’m not really sure. All I knew, because occasionally the clouds would part for a moment, was that I was heading south.
I think the town below is Polizzi Generosa, the other ‘Beautiful Village’. I’m not sure. And even though I drove right through it, I have no idea whether it is beautiful or not. Because I saw nothing of it.
As I climbed the mountain I drove into the densest fog I had ever encountered. Even worse than the fog I’d driven through years ago in the Po Valley in northern Italy. The only thing that made the situation marginally less stressful was that all the other drivers – all of a sudden there were cars everywhere, as if they’d been sucked in by the fog – were responsibly crawling along at a snail’s pace even I felt comfortable with.
By the time I got far enough down the mountain that the fog started to dissipate, I was so rattled I was still driving at a snail’s pace, which turned out to be a good thing because around one of the bends in the road…
…a cow and her nursing calf were standing in the middle of the lane.
I still had a long way to go, but from here it was mostly downhill. Literally. When I finally saw the sea – or maybe I was willing that hazy bluish colour beyond the mountains to be the sea – I heaved the proverbial sigh of relief. There were still a few more white knuckle stretches ahead, but the worst was behind me.
By the time I pulled into the driveway of the agriturismo the sun was starting to set. Just enough time for a swim and a glass of the local white before dinner.
Recently I came across a quote that might have been useful that day – ‘Follow your heart … but take your brain with you.’